What is the link between COVID-19 vaccines and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)?

Scientists are now examining the potential link between COVID vaccines and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). 

This rare neurological condition, which affects the peripheral nervous system (the network of nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord), occurs when a trigger, such as a virus, makes the immune system mistakenly attack the nerves and causes pain, numbness tingling and loss of co-ordination.

Known triggers for Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)

  • Infections
  • Viruses such as flu
  • Food poisoning 
  • Stomach bug (gastroenteritis)
  • Surgery
  • Vaccinations

An increased rate of GBS is associated with certain vaccines, including some seasonal influenza vaccines and a vaccine to prevent shingles.

In the US in 1976, there was a small increased risk of GBS after swine flu vaccination, which was a special flu vaccine for a potential pandemic strain of flu virus. 

The increased risk was approximately one additional case of GBS for every 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine. Scientists have several theories about the cause, but the exact reason for this link remains unknown.

Are COVID-19 vaccines linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)?

The US Food and Drug Administration has now acknowledged that they have observed an increased risk with the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine and GBS.

According to sources, there have been 100 preliminary reports of GBS after approximately 12.5 million doses administered.

Most of these patients were hospitalised as a result and there was one reported death.

Eleven people who received the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine developed GBS according to two studies, published in the journal Annals of Neurology on June 10.

The authors described an unusual variant of GBS characterised by prominent facial weakness.

The frequency of GBS from the areas where the cases were reported was estimated to be up to 10 times greater than expected.

Seven cases were reported from a medical centre in Kerala, where about 1.2 million people were administered the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, known as Covishield in India.

Four were reported from Nottingham, UK, in an area in which approximately 700,000 people received the jab.

Further investigations of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)

In response to the potential causal link between the vaccines and GBS, The British Peripheral Nerve Society (BPNS) is collating data of all hospitalised cases of GBS, to feed into an ongoing study looking at the possibility of a causal link as opposed to temporal association, where symptoms have developed within a few days or weeks of a COVID vaccination.

The study is collating all instances of GBS, regardless of the suspected trigger, and will be looking at severity and duration as well as possible cause.

Should I seek medical help if I suspect I have Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

Yes. GBS can range from mild symptoms with brief weakness to paralysis, leaving the person unable to breathe independently and requiring ventilation. There is a one in 20 chance of GBS being fatal. Symptoms often affect the arms, breathing muscles, and even the face, reflecting more widespread nerve damage

The greatest stage of weakness is reached within the first two weeks after first symptoms. Most people eventually recover from even the most severe cases of GBS.  After recovery, some people will continue to have some degree of weakness.

What are the symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS)

  • Pain often starting in the legs or back
  • Tingling in the feet or hands
  • Pains across the chest
  • Weakness on both sides of the body 
  • Difficulty climbing stairs or with walking 
  • Difficulty with eye muscles and vision
  • Facial weakness may occur
  • Difficulty swallowing, speaking, or chewing
  • Pricking or pins and needles sensations in the hands and feet
  • Pain that can be severe, particularly at night
  • Coordination problems and unsteadiness
  • Abnormal heart beat/rate or blood pressure
  • Problems with digestion and/or bladder control

Can Guillain-Barre Syndrome be treated?

For many, Guillain-Barré syndrome is so serious it will need to be treated in hospital

Treatments to help GBS include:

  • Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) – a treatment made from donated blood that helps bring your immune system under control
  • Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) – an alternative to IVIG where a machine is used to filter your blood to remove the harmful substances that are attacking your nerves
  • Pain relief, such as Gabapentin
  • Ventilation to help with breathing and/or a feeding tube
  • Rehabilitation with physiotherapy to aid recovery

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